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Week of 14 May 2007

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Monday, 14 May 2007
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08:18 - The new refrigerator arrived yesterday. Barbara and I are both pleased with it. Being a woman, Barbara is happy about stuff like leak-proof shelves, vegetable crispers, front-accessible temperature settings, and the stainless-steel finish. Being a man, all I care about is that it keeps my Coke cold, makes plenty of ice cubes, and will last a long time.

The rest of this month will be busy, starting with dinner with our friends Mary and Paul this week. Mary has one more weekend in town before she leaves for her run around the world. She'll be running the equivalent of more than two full Marathons a week every week for the next three months. I still can't quite get my mind around that idea. A couple of weeks ago, just before Barbara and I arrived in Bowie, Maryland after a seven-hour drive, I commented to her that the distance we'd traveled in a full day of driving plus our return trip of another full day of driving would still be less mileage than Mary will be running. Geez.

Meanwhile, I absolutely must get this astronomy book finished, so there'll be little posted here until that's done.


Tuesday, 15 May 2007
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09:09 - Unexpected trip to the mechanic this morning. Well, not entirely unexpected. When we drove over to Barbara's sister's house for Mothers' Day on Sunday, Barbara mentioned that her gas pedal felt funny. She'd made an appointment with our mechanic to check it this afternoon on her way home from work. This morning, a couple minutes after Barbara left the house, I got a phone call from her. Her gas pedal was sticking, so she headed straight for our mechanic's place. I picked her up there and she dropped me off at home on her way to work.

Except for the Preface, I finished the astronomy book yesterday afternoon. All of the manuscript chapters are posted in the Subscriber area in .ODT, .DOC, and .PDF formats.

I suspect there'll be some re-write on this one. If I understand correctly, this is the first book from the Make Magazine group, and we're kind of making it up as we go along in terms of formatting and layout. My editor wants me to "Make-ify" the content, which has been frustrating because this isn't a project-oriented book in the Make sense. Given my past experience with O'Reilly, I have no doubt that their production folks will create a beautiful book from our manuscript. It'll be interesting to see what they come up with.

I'll be more involved than usual in that process, both to make sure that the final form of the book is suitable for use in the field and to re-write/re-format material to fit the template that the production folks come up with. Still, it should be worth the extra effort. If we get it right, this book should sell well for years without a revision.

Paul and Mary are coming over for dinner tonight. Nothing fancy, just take-out pizza out on the deck. Well, on plates, actually, but we'll sit out on the deck while we eat it.

I'm going to talk to Kim today to see if it's okay with her if we invite Jasmine to have dinner with us. Jasmine turns 14 next month. She's interested in science, and this is an opportunity for her to meet two real, working scientists. In particular, I'd like Jasmine to meet Mary, who's the best role model I know for a 14-year-old girl who wants to pursue a career in science.


Wednesday, 16 May 2007
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08:38 - Dinner with Paul and Mary last night. Kim and Jasmine couldn't make it. Jasmine had a school project she had to finish. So it was just the four of us. Well, six, counting the two dogs sitting at the back door staring at us and our pizza through the glass.

We were talking about weddings and pre-wedding counseling, and Paul and Mary told us about their experience. Neither of them are religious, but they got married in church, presumably to please Mary's parents, who are devout Catholics. Had not Paul and Mary's father done some fast talking, I have a feeling that Mary might have assaulted the priest immediately after the wedding. The priest intended to introduce the newly married couple as "Mr. and Mrs. Paul Jones". As Dr. Mary Chervenak says, she would have lost her title, her first name, and her last name all in one fell swoop. Paul protested to the priest, but apparently it was Mary's father passing the priest some money under the table that finally did the trick.

So we talked about political correctness, and my copy editors' frequent attempts to change my grammatically correct use of the indefinite pronoun to hideous barbarisms like s/he or shim. A bit later, Mary asked, apparently out of the blue, "What about a Hershey Bar?" My first thought was that Mary was asking if we had any chocolate to go with the cheesecake dessert they'd brought. Seeing our puzzled expressions, after a short pause she added, "An It-It Bar?" A heartbeat later, we all started laughing. Paul was laughing so hard there were tears streaming down his face. I told Mary I was going to steal that one.

Mary has about ten days left at home before she leaves for her round-the-world run. After a week or so of "boot camp" to prepare for the run, she starts the actual run on 1 June. During the following 90 days, she'll be running across Europe, Asia, and North America as part of relay of runners that will be running 24 hours a day. Her share of the run is something like 800 miles, which still flabbergasts me. She'll be blogging about her experiences, and I fully intend to follow her blog every day until she returns.


Thursday, 17 May 2007
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08:10 - I just ordered a Vivitar DF120 digital slave flash unit. At $40 including shipping, it's a bargain. With a guide number of 40 at ISO 100, it's surprisingly powerful for such a small unit--2.2" x 1.8" x 1.0" (55mm x 45.5mm x 26mm). It runs on two AAA cells, and has a reasonable recharge time of 5 seconds at full output. I'll be using it mostly for close-up product shots, so the recharge time should be less.

This is one of the very few inexpensive slave flash units that will work reliably with Barbara's Pentax D-SLR. Most inexpensive slave flashes trigger as soon as they see any flash from the camera, whether it's the main flash or a preliminary flash. The Vivitar DF120 is smart. It learns the flash pattern of the camera, and knows to wait for the main flash before it triggers itself.

I'll be using it for many of the images I shoot for the home chemistry lab handbook.

I see that the HD-DVD promotional group has announced a $100 instant rebate on the least expensive Toshiba HD-DVD player, reducing its price to $300. I don't know who they think they're fooling. That's five or six times more than I'm willing to pay for a DVD player. Heck, it's two or three times as much as I'm willing to pay for a DVD recorder. And that's not even considering the outrageous price of HD-DVD discs.

Let's see. Ridiculously high prices for players and discs and very few titles available. It's no wonder that the roll-out of HD-DVD and Blu-Ray has been a complete disaster. After all this time, both HD formats combined now own something like 1% of the market. As I see it, in addition to a large installed base of HD televisions, there are six factors required for HD discs to succeed in the market, only one of which exists now.

1. Inexpensive players (<$100, and ideally less than $50).
2. Inexpensive movie discs (no more expensive than standard DVDs, and ideally less)
3. A very wide range of titles (at least 100 times as many as currently exist)
4. Inexpensive HD burners for PCs (<$100, and ideally less than $50)
5. Inexpensive HD blank disks (<$1, and ideally <$0.25 each)
6. Good ripping/compression software to allow consumers to copy HD movies, removing the DRM

Only #6 currently exists. If the industry wants HD-DVD or Blu-Ray to replace standard DVD, it had better concentrate on the first five.


Friday, 18 May 2007
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08:47 - In more news about HD video discs, the AACS DRM used by HD-DVD and Blu-Ray discs has been cracked again, this time a week before discs that use the new key have even been released. These guys just don't get it. DRM doesn't work, cannot work, and the harder they push DRM, the harder the community will push back.

I view all of this with detachment, because none of it makes any difference to us. We don't own an HD-TV nor an HD video player, and we have no plans to buy into HD-TV. Barbara and I have little interest in video entertainment, and we watch almost no TV. We generally spend our evenings reading, and about the only time the TV is turned on is to check the weather forecast. And even that we generally do on the web nowadays.

We don't download movies. The recent stuff that's available on BitTorrent is of zero interest to us, and the occasional older stuff we do want to watch is available from Netflix. We don't download music. Barbara owns several hundred audio CDs, and buys new ones whenever she finds one she wants.

I'm watching the death spiral of network television with interest. Viewership is down dramatically and dropping every year. And it's not just the number of viewers that's declining fast, it's the quality of those viewers. The viewers that advertisers want to reach--those with money and taste--simply aren't tuning in any more. The occasional intelligent series, such as Veronica Mars or Studio 60, doesn't draw enough viewers to survive, so we end up with more and more crap game shows and other worthless programming that's cheap to produce. DVRs have already wrecked the traditional advertising-supported model, and that phenomenon continues to grow. The end of "free" television is in sight, and it can't come soon enough for me.

The obvious question is what will replace the old model. I'm convinced the answer is that producers will have to begin marketing their products directly to people who want and are willing to pay for them. As I've said repeatedly, I'm willing to pay for programming I want to watch, and I'm by no means alone. Guys like Joss Whedon and Rob Thomas (Veronica Mars) will eventually end up producing their programs without network funding and selling those programs directly to viewers like me. Count on it. It's the only model that can succeed. And networks and other aggregators have no role to play in this new model. Nor do advertisers.

12:50 - I just posted the Preface of Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders to the Subscribers' page. There'll be some corrections and re-write, but basically the book is now complete. And I turn my attention now to the home chem lab book, which should occupy me until late this summer.

14:21 - I just sent the following message to PJ at Groklaw.

From: Robert Bruce Thompson
  To: Pamela Jones
Date: Today 14:16:06
  Re: Fwd: [Advisors] Microsoft patent bluff

Here's a copy of a message I just sent to a mailing list that I belong to. Do you think Novell has been playing a very deep game all along. Come into my parlour...

----------  Forwarded Message  ----------

Subject: [Advisors] Microsoft patent bluff
Date: Friday 18 May 2007 14:13
From: Robert Bruce Thompson
To: Chaos Manor Advisors

PJ over on Groklaw has an interesting post up. Apparently, the Microsoft vouchers for SuSE Linux have no expiration dates, which means that Microsoft has royally screwed itself.


PJ gets one thing wrong. She talks about the release date of GPL v3, which actually doesn't matter, because the current Linux kernel and support utilities are licensed under GPL v2. What matters is when the first GPL v3 app is shipped with the SuSE distro. At any time after that date, if just one person turns in a voucher for SuSE that was originally supplied by Microsoft, Microsoft automatically grants all Linux users an irrevocable license to use its patents freely.

Novell took a lot of abuse from the free software zealots when their patent cross-licensing deal with Microsoft was announced. But I'm beginning to think that perhaps this was Novell's intention all along. Novell has absolutely first-rate attorneys, and given Novell's support for Linux and OSS, it wouldn't surprise me if they'd been playing a very deep game all along.


Saturday, 19 May 2007
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Sunday, 20 May 2007
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